Anti-sexual Abuse Group Demands Catholic Church Release Names of Accused Valley Priests

By James Ward
Visalia Times-Delta
May 8, 2019

Esther Hatfield Miller, a SNAP volunteer and survivor of clergy sexual abuse, calls for the Diocese of Fresno to release the names of clergy accused of sex abuse. (Photo: James Ward)

In the wake of recent allegations of sexual molestation by a Bakersfield-area Catholic priest, a victims' advocacy group is demanding the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno immediately release the names of any clergy member accused of abuse over the past 50 years.

At a press conference held Tuesday in front of the Fresno Diocese in central Fresno, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) released the names of two dozen San Joaquin Valley priests they say have been credibly accused of sexual misconduct.

At least three of the accused priests — reverends John Lastiri, Miguel Flores and Eric Swearingen, the current pastor of the Catholic Church of Visalia — have connections to Tulare County.

"Accusations should be taken seriously," said Esther Hatfield Miller, a SNAP volunteer, and survivor of clergy sexual abuse. "And it's important that those accusations should always be made public."

The Diocese of Fresno stretches across eight counties, including Tulare, Fresno, Kern, Kings, Inyo, Madera, Merced and Mariposa, and serves 1.2 million parishioners.

The Diocese of Fresno announced in February it would review charges of sexual abuse by priests and other church officials dating back to 1922.

But members of SNAP say that review is taking too long and information on sexual abuse charges against members of the Catholic clergy should be released immediately.

"For far too long there has been a systematic cover-up of abuse," said SNAP volunteer Joey Pisciteelli, also a survivor of sexual abuse.

SNAP volunteer Joey Pisciteelli, a survivor of sexual abuse, calls for the Diocese of Fresno to release the names of clergy accused of sex abuse. Behind him is a quilt made of photos of survivors of clergy sex abuse. (Photo: James Ward)

New charges of sex abuse

SNAP held the Fresno press conference after the organization was recently contacted by five men who allege they were sexually abused by Monsignor Craig Harrison of Bakersfield's St. Francis Parish.

Three of the men say the abuse happened in the 1980s and '90s when Harrison was pastor at a church in Merced. The two other alleged incidents occurred while Harrison was working in Bakersfield.

"I believe the victims," Miller said.

SNAP encouraged all five of the men to contact law enforcement agencies about the alleged abuse.

SNAP's allegations against Flores, Swearingen, and Lastiri all revolve around previously reported incidents of sexual misconduct:

Flores, most recently of Bakersfield's St. Joseph Catholic Church, was put on leave in March after new allegations surfaced about a Kings County sexual assault he was acquited of in 2002. In that case, Flores was found not guilty of three counts of rape, two counts of witness intimidation and one charge of criminal threats for allegedly sexually assaulting a teenage girl in Hanford. Flores has also worked at churches in Visalia, Arvin, Fresno, Tranquility, Orange Cove and Squaw Valley.

Lastiri was put on leave in September 2018 after parishioners at Hanford's Immaculate Heart and St. Brigid churches complained about homosexual-themed videos found on a YouTube account allegedly belonging to Lastiri. The videos revolved around Lastiri's attraction to "bears," a slang term used in the gay community to refer to adult burly, bearded men. Lastiri has also worked at churches in Visalia, Merced, and Fresno.

Swearingen, who is currently fighting brain cancer, was accused in 2006 of molesting a teenage altar boy many years earlier. No criminal charges were ever filed in that case, but a civil jury ruled that Swearingen did likely abuse the alleged victim but that the diocese did not have any prior knowledge of the incident. The lawsuit required that the jury find both claims to be true. Because of the split decision, the judge ruled it a mistrial. A second trial was scheduled, but the two sides agreed to binding arbitration well before the court date — arbitration the two sides agreed to keep private.

The Roman Catholic Church has been shaken worldwide by a wave of clergy sexual-abuse cases since 2002 when the Boston archdiocese was accused of ignoring years of warnings about priests accused of molesting 130 people.

In 2018, after a damning grand jury report uncovered 300 abusive priests in Pennsylvania, multiple state attorneys general have opened their own cases, and hundreds of new victims are expected to come forward across the U.S.

Sexual misconduct allegations have also led to criminal charges, settlements and resignations of priests in Ireland, Australia and several other countries.

In March, Bishop Joseph Brennan, the newly named head of the Diocese of Fresno, vowed to fully implement Pope Francis' recent reforms proposed at a summit on preventing clergy sex abuse held in Rome.

"Victim-survivors have to be our focus," Brennan said. "Care for those who’ve been on the receiving end of such heinous, horrific behavior."

A quilt made of photos of survivors of clergy sex abuse. SNAP isdemanding the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno immediately release the names of any clergy member accused of abuse over the past 50 years. (Photo: James Ward)

Not just the Catholic church

The Catholic church isn't the only high-profile institution to be roiled by sex abuse scandals.

In February, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention promised to encourage reforms that protect children and women after a sweeping investigation published by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News found hundreds of victims of sexual misconduct by church leaders or volunteers.

In 2017, Dr. Larry Nassar pled guilty to abusing hundreds of gymnasts despite complaints to the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics.

The Boy Scouts of America has also faced a major sex scandal when a judge ordered the release of over 20,000 confidential documents revealing that over 1,000 leaders and volunteers had been banned after being accused of sexual or inappropriate conduct with boys.

In April, more than 200 individuals have come forward with new allegations of sexual abuse by members of the Boy Scouts of America.








Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.